The Uncommons

The public health crisis has initiated an institutional crisis of confidence in the exhibitionary status quo. Curatorial momentum for some institutions lie in evangelising technology as responsive to and amelioratory – if not outright curative – of the social crises occurring during this pandemic event. A variant of pandemic amnesia has afflicted institutional thinking; it is sufficient to note for now that the crisis talk around the needs of a post-COVID museum or exhibition has effaced all other social developments prior to the pandemic, as though they are no longer present in or relevant to our public and cultural spaces. Talk of ‘the future’ now runs synonymous with ‘post-pandemic’ – with all prior fractures around race, gender, and the have-nots now safely quarantined in silence. 

With near-uniformity, the normative course of action by state funders and arts councils for exhibition-making and public programming lies in the Frankenstein neologism that is the phygital, a term that first arose as marketing adspeak describing blended customer experience combining physical spatial design and digital applications that has filtered into museological thinking around the post-Covid future of exhibitions. This futuristic vision counts on a double assumption of simultaneity and substitutability: first, that online viewership will be concurrent to in-person attendance in ways that the latter either desires to double their engagement with the same exhibition, or is satisfied with substituting their in-person engagement with digital counterparts; second, that the digitised programming is concurrent in all territories and timezones, offering simultaneous and potentially limitless access to any interested registrant, while offering the host institution the not-unattractive proposition of substituting any fall in attendance count with endlessly replenished global views.

The more substantive contention isn’t with the success or failure of these assumptions, or to meet these assumptions with some form of empiricism, but the belief they rest on – of the Internet as an open commons that maps seamless pathways back to institutional audiences. Access to digitised exhibition content continues to be pathway- and platform-dependent, with enduring patterns and procedures for access and interaction that also shape the contours and limits of these interactions. Using Instagram TV or Facebook Live is to accept that platform’s demographic curve (Facebook skews college educated, far less under-25s), and their behavioral preferences (Facebook favors settled social rhythms and family networks, Instagram users tend to visit daily). Platform algorithms are still counting on posts timings and discussion-driving mechanics, like polls and queries, to drive in-feed appearances and features. Taken together with our user preferences for habituation and known pleasures, these platform technologies fashion a self-selecting loop that reinforces the recurrence of the familiar in our searches and feeds, pushing the hyper-local to users instead of other regionalities. Crucially, the COVID-19 crisis has shown an institutional perception in Singapore of the internet as a commons that is somehow untethered to and consequently unimpeded by the limits on discursive and social spaces in the country. We are witnessing the museum in Singapore as an metonymic aspirant, even if impossible, to that belief in the Internet commons; user experience becomes a substitute for even the mildest form of participation, where possibly political implications of what it means to make difficult decisions between constrained options have become entirely a matter of technology or communications. 

The question I’ve been asking myself is the possibility for art spaces, especially, artist initiatives to do otherwise, to become spaces that were necessary even in times of relative normalcy, but are now meeting an alarming urgency; if art spaces can provide the care of already divergent communities, but were already comet-like in their scarcity within the cosmology of art spaces; if, to borrow Marisol de la Cadena’s term for ecological thinking underpinned by still-unseen activities and assemblages, we can produce uncommons, spaces for differences and divergences that remain discomforting to the mainstream, even unwelcome in the existing public spaces in our cities. These differences nonetheless are existing if less-visible participants in the image of multicultural cosmopolises which cities like Singapore prophesied themselves into being. These divergent spaces in small cities (and Singapore is a small city) are themselves small, but befits the scale of those who attend to them. These uncommons, in other words, are crucial to the often unattended-to: the economically precarious, our sexual minorities, and to those with resistive cultural practices. 

Imagining a development of the uncommons with this underseen pluralism in mind necessitates thinking out of the scalar logics of operating systems and Web-based platforms, to consider other paths for these micro-spaces to meet their uncommon publics. Multiplication can happen granularly, in the interiors of our existing spaces. Together with other spaces such as soft/WALL/studs, Objectifs, and other smaller organisations and collectives concerned with the unattended-to, Grey Projects has made some modest moves in this direction. By happenstance, prior to the start of last year, I had made plans to shift away from an exhibition-first programming to other forms of curatorial-thinking and space-making. We have continued with our commitment to an annual queer exhibition program but have supplemented it with free studio space to queer practitioners who cannot count on arts council grant- or studio-support for their proposals. We have converted our space on the weekends into a counselling space, to offer free and queer-friendly mental health counselling by trained counsellors for anyone working in the arts. We have organised book sales with materials donated by friends and supporters, to raise the money required to pay for these counsellors. Our curatorial project Care Package offers artist-participants a small stipend if they would consider in turn making a gift of any kind for someone in the arts who they not only respect but care about. 

To grow the uncommons is to think away from the architecture of bigness and consider ways to proliferate ever more divergent spots from which to address the underseen city, and to build alliances and other temporary modes of collective action. Together with three other artist initiatives and collectives, Grey has co-created a mutual aid program that diverts some of the financial support that we have received from the larger museums towards meeting urgent, non-production-related necessities, such as medical costs, rent and food expenses. In the coming months, we are planning to release a public document and organise workshops for people involved in nonprofit and independent spaces, to discuss the spatial precarity of Singapore’s independent art spaces, and the ways in which we can better collectively advocate and organise for their survival. Three long-standing, pioneering organisations – Theatre Practice, The Necessary Stage, and the Substation – are due to lose their leases in the coming year. By thinking through the changes in the existing ecology only in terms of increasing digitisation or virtualising our spaces and work, are we only to expect more losses to come?

About the Writer

Jason Wee is an artist and the author of three poetry books, including the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize finalist An Epic of Durable Departures. He has participated in residencies and fellowships such as The Arts House-National University of Singapore (2014-2015), NTU-CCA Singapore (2016-2017), and IdeasCity New Museum (2020). Recent exhibitions include Asia Society Triennial 2020, Singapore Biennale 2019, ArtSciene Museum (2019), Richard Koh Fine Art KL (2019), NTU-CCA Singapore (2017). He is represented by Yavuz Gallery Singapore.

Recent curatorial projects include Stories We Tell To Scare Ourselves With (Taipei MOCA, 2019), and Singapur Unheimlich (ifa galerie Berlin, 2015). Other curatorial projects include Useful Fictions by Shubigi Rao (2013), When You Get Closer To The Heart, You May Find Cracks by the Migrant Ecologies Project (NUS Museum, 2014). His artist-initiated projects include Tomorrow Is An Island (Villa Vassilieff, 2016), ART OPENINGS: The Expanded Field of Art Writing (CCA Singapore, 2018) and PostSuperFutureAsia (Taipei Contemporary Art Center 2017, Ilmin Museum, 2019). He founded and runs Grey Projects, an art library and residency.